Saturday, October 07, 2006

Colonel A.D. Powers on “Conducting an Auction House” (1904)
By Robert A. Doyle, CAI, ISA, CES, CAGA

50th President of the National Auctioneers Association
Principal Auctioneer/Appraiser Absolute Auction & Realty, Inc.

Robert A. Doyle


A.D. Powers, from Chicago, Ill, was the first President of the International Association of Auctioneers formed on August 22nd, 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri at a gathering of Auctioneers in a building within the St. Louis World’s Fair grounds. Mr. Powers was truly a “Venue Master” and a great example of a sharing “Knight of the Hammer” that imparted his wisdom freely with all the other “Colonels” through his writings in the National Auctioneer magazine published in Chicago, Illinois and distributed nationally to the growing Auction Industry in 1904.

One of the subjects that he reflected on was “How I would Conduct An Auction House.” He provided his thoughts and advice over many months in the magazine in 1904, which will be the subject of this column. I will extract, in his words, from two of those articles that will provide insight on “Auction House Rules” and “Wit & Humor.” Although these articles were written over one hundred years ago, I think you will agree, that much applies today.

“No business will succeed without rules, and rules that are not enforced are worse than no rules at all. Be the head of your own business, and let people who deal with you know that they must transact their business in your way. They may complain, but they will respect you all the more for it. People will get mad, and say they will never come in your house again, if you do not grant this concession, and that infraction of your rules. Let them go. Nine out of ten will come back again, and give you no more trouble. Be firm, without being tyrannical. Be just, without being harsh. Be stubborn, but polite. Refuse all applications for special privileges. Play no favorites, treat everyone alike.

The woman who buys a cook stove, should have the same fair treatment as the merchant who buys a carload. Favoritism will kill a sale quicker than anything I know of.

Have your rules painted on the wall near the office, where everyone can see them, and enforce them to the letter. Here are some good rules: 1. Terms are Cash. 2. Deposit required from all. 3. No goods delivered during sale. 4. No goods delivered without a receipted bill. 5. Purchasers must take all of the goods, or none. 6. Storage will be charged on all goods left over 24 hours. 7. All goods unpaid for in full, within 6 days will be sold for settlement of account. 8. All weights, measures and counts must be verified a time of delivery. 9. No error of any kind will be corrected after 24 hours. 10. No smoking during sale. (Note: this was 100 years ago.) 11. All goods guaranteed, as represented, if claim is made within 24 hours.

Now these rules are easy to understand. They are simple enough for anybody. Still at every sale somebody will want to break one or more rule. Do not allow it.

There are always people who think they are better than anybody else, but let them know that everybody has an equal show at your auction sales.”

Mr. Powers goes on to provide many examples of both men and women that bid and then want to change the rules to their advantage. In all the examples, whether they reflect mere “whining” or attempts to cheat and defraud the Auctioneer and seller, Powers firmly adheres to the rules.

On the subject of “Wit & Humor” Colonel Powers provides his opinions gleaned from many years of experience as a professional Auctioneer.

“The time has arrived when to be a successful Auctioneer, it is not necessary to be a comedian. It may be well enough in a small town where everybody knows everybody else, to mix in a little funny business, but the old notion that a man must act a monkey to sell goods at auction is a thing of the past.

A little wit now and then is very good, but it must be in good taste, free from any suggestion of coarseness, and spontaneous. It must come in a hurry and go in a hurry.

I have seen Auctioneers stop a sale to tell a funny story, and then wait for some funny man in the crowd to tell one, and actually forget what he was selling and the amount offered.

Above all things, be a business man when you are selling goods at auction. People come to buy, not to be entertained. Every crowd has its would be clown, and for an Auctioneer to indulge in too much funny business only encourages such people to interrupt the sale. When some smart man tries to make his presence felt, call him down good and strong. Do not tolerate anything but business while your sale is in progress.

I do not mean to say that an Auctioneer must be sour and cross, that is even worse. There is a happy medium. Be pleasant and agreeable, smile at times, and laugh when it is appropriate, but stick right up to business.

Sell your goods, sell them fast, and see that your are getting fair prices, this is the main thing, talk pleasantly all the time, talk fast, but not so fast that the people cannot keep up with you. Remember that all your talk is for one purpose – to sell the goods. Be dignified, but not to stiff or ostentatious. Command the attention and respect of your crowd. Never get out of humor. I know you are often tried even as Job was tried, but do not give way to ill-temper. Be cool headed and even-tempered, and let other people get as much excited as they will, it only encourages them to bid a little higher.

Wit is valuable if it is of the right kind, and properly directed. Use all the wit you have, if it helps to call attention to the article you are selling, or to bring out its merits.

For example, suppose you are selling a steel engraving, or any other kind of picture, you can talk to an imaginary questioner and say, ‘Yes, ma’am this is a steel engraving – that is, we stole it, and you can buy it so cheap, you will feel like you stole it.’ This attracts everyone’s attention to the picture, and although the talk is nonsense, it makes the picture bring more money, and that should be the sole object of an Auctioneer.

On the other hand, when selling a sofa lounge, to say, “Gentlemen, buy this, take it home and hitch your horse to it, it looks like it is a little buggy,” will always cause a laugh, but it is disgusting, conveys the idea that there are bugs on the article, and that it is undesirable. This little speech will make the sofa bring less money than it would have brought otherwise. I could give a dozen of like examples, but deem it unnecessary.

An Auctioneer’s time is worth as much as $5. (Equivalent to $105.57 today) a minute at times when goods are selling, and time must not be wasted. Tell all the funny tales you want to when you are off duty, but let your talk be for money when the sale is in progress.”

A. D. Powers was a very successful Auctioneer specializing in Real Estate at Auction. He handled many large auctions and worked with some of the other super stars of Auctioneering during the first decade of the 20th Century. His words of wisdom still hold true today.



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